The campus of the University of California, Berkeley, boasts three known wild populations of fox squirrels, who spend their days cavorting among the tree branches and foraging for sustenance. They’ve also now made a contribution to science, thanks to a series of experiments by UC-Berkeley researchers aimed at assessing how squirrels figure out whether or not to leap from one given tree branch to another.
In the process, the team caught several squirrels resorting to innovative moves, reminiscent of parkour, to execute especially tricky maneuvers, re-orienting their bodies to push off a vertical surface to ensure a smooth, safe landing. The team described its findings in a new paper published in the journal Science.
Squirrels are masters at navigating through the treetops, jumping from branch to branch without falling. “As a model organism to understand the biological limits of balance and agility, I would argue that squirrels are second to none,” said co-author Nathaniel Hunt, a former UC-Berkeley graduate student who is now researching biomechanics at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. “If we try to understand how squirrels do this, then we may discover general principles of high performance locomotion in the canopy and other complex terrains that apply to the movements of other animals and robots.”